On Record: Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki – Steve Reich: Runner / Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (Nonesuch)

Steve Reich
Runner (2016)
Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018)

Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki

Nonesuch 7559791018 [35’25”]

Producer Dmitriy Lipay, Engineer Alexander Lipay

Recorded 1-4 November 2018 (Music for Ensemble and Orchestra), 6-7 November 2021 (Runner), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It is best to let Steve Reich himself tell the story of these two closely related orchestral pieces. Runner, he says, is ‘for a large ensemble of winds, percussion, pianos, and strings.  While the tempo remains more or less constant, there are five movements, played without pause, that are based on different note durations.  First, even sixteenths, then irregularly accented eighths, then a very slowed-down version of the standard bell pattern from Ghana in quarters, fourth a return to the irregularly accented eighths, and finally a return to the sixteenths but now played as pulses by the winds for as long as a breath will comfortably sustain them.  The title was suggested by the rapid opening and my awareness that, like a runner, I would have to pace the piece to reach a successful conclusion.’

Meanwhile its companion, the Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, is in effect Runner 2. It is described by Reich as ‘an extension of the Baroque concerto grosso where there is more than one soloist. Here there are twenty soloists – all regular members of the orchestra, including the first stand strings and winds, as well as two vibraphones and two pianos.  The piece is in five movements, though the tempo never changes, only the note value of the constant pulse in the pianos.  Thus, an arch form: sixteenths, eighths, quarters, eighths, sixteenths.  Music for Ensemble and Orchestra is modelled on my Runner, which has the same five movement form’.

The recording marks the first foray of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Susanna Mälkki into the music of Reich in recorded form.

What’s the music like?

Reich clearly enjoyed writing these pieces, as he tells David Lang in the liner notes for this release. The quick tempo means that as the starting gun fires, Runner is immediately into its stride with brisk music and rich colours. When the tempo marking halves to become Eighths, and then Quarters, the slower music is beautifully managed through sustained notes, pulling out the tension. The piano and vibraphones come through beautifully here, while the harmonies continue to negotiate new corners and scenery as a runner would do. The feeling persists, though, that Reich is at his happiest in the music of Sixteenths, where the busy conversations of the woodwind and the bell tolls of the vibraphones give the music impressive stature. The piece ends quickly, with one of the composer’s trademark ‘fades’.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra feels weightier in its own Sixteenths section starts, pianos oscillating and strings gathering in hymn-like unison before the pianos create an impressive grandeur with their sustained low notes. Reich’s command of the orchestra is immensely assured, more so than it was in earlier works such as the Variations for wind, strings and keyboards or The Four Sections, but never losing the luminosity of those works, nor their capacity to pan out into larger spaces.

The Eighths section is the most emotionally powerful music yet, with large scale harmonies that move freely between weighted dissonance and brief consonance, the latter appearing like shafts of light in the music. Quarters brings forward the choirs of woodwind, their distinctive motif alternating with the piano, before the percussive instruments drive Eighths to greater heights, pianos chiming with the vibraphones. In typical Reich fashion the acceleration from Eighths to Sixteenths is both seamless and thrilling, the clarinets pushing to the front as the music gathers itself for the finish. Then just as suddenly – and seamlessly – the bottom drops away and the figures float away like birds on the wing, all treble and no bass.

Does it all work?

It does. The performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki are of a uniformly high degree, and the writing is subtly complex – meaning that Reich’s workings reward close inspection, but that the overall whole is beautifully realised and works well even in the middle foreground for the listener.

Is it recommended?

Of course. Steve Reich is a composer where nearly every move he makes is captured on record, to our advantage – and this pair of works, representing one of his most recently published chapters, are typically rewarding listening.

Listen

Buy

You can buy this new release at the Presto website. For more on Steve Reich himself, visit the composer’s website

On Record – Ensemble Intercontemporain / George Jackson – Steve Reich: Reich/Richter (Nonesuch)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Reich/Richter was originally written to be performed with German visual artist Gerhard Richter and Corinna Belz’s film Moving Picture (946-3). The film is based on Richter’s book, Patterns, where the author took a photo of one of his abstract paintings and scanned it into a computer. He cut the scan in half, then cut each half in two, and then reversed two of the four resultant quarters into mirror images. This process – ‘divide, mirror, repeat’ – was repeated all the way through from a half to a 4096th.

Belz helpfully described the film in terms of pixels, beginning with two-‘pixel’ stripes, while the music started with a ‘two-sixteenth’ oscillating pattern. The music then shadows the film as it moves to four, eight and sixteen stripes, at which point Reich introduced longer notes, expanding the music in response. As he then describes, the music returns to more rapid movement as the pixel count starts to diminish.

The match of visual artist and composer could hardly be more appropriate, and their resultant work was performed more than one hundred times at The Shed in New York during 2019. This recording, with the Ensemble Intercontemporain under George Jackson, was made in Paris at the Philharmonie.

What’s the music like?

One of Steve Reich’s many endearing qualities as a composer is the ability to take what sounds like a very complicated mathematical process and make it incredibly easy on the ear – and Reich/Richter repeats that trick.

As with the best ‘minimalist’ works it rewards attentive listening greatly, the ear drawing out shorter phrases and colour combinations, which prove to be every bit as vivid as the cover implies. Yet background listening works equally well, the ear and moreover the mind able to appreciate Reich’s hazy, impressionistic shades which recall earlier works such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ from 1973. Here, though, it is possible to appreciate Reich’s mastery of writing for wind instruments, incorporating them into the texture.

Unsurprisingly, Reich/Richter works best when experienced in its unbroken span of 37 minutes. There is some busy activity at all times but Reich’s sustained notes really stand out, giving the piece a broad scope that arches almost overhead. The ever-changing texture benefits from the lines afforded to brightly-toned violins, or crisp clarinets, but when these instruments retreat to make up the broad brushed colours in the middle background, a lovely haze ensues. This makes the piece one of Reich’s easiest to listen to, though by the time we get to the third part, Crossfades, the stretching of the notes introduces a notable tension not dissimilar to that experienced in the early Reich piece Four Organs. As the tempo recovers in Ending, the feeling is strangely exhilarating, like a flower opening out again in the sunlight.

Does it all work?

It does, achieving a very interesting blend of movement and stasis. The performance is excellent too, and intriguing that Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Parisian ensemble founded by Pierre Boulez, should now be recording his music! Boulez, it is safe to say, was not a fan of the so-called ‘minimalists’, and it would be fascinating if we could somehow know his thoughts on the recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enthusiastically – a compelling listen. The slightly short running time of the album release means that if you’re a Reich completist, it is worth bearing in mind that Nonesuch plan to release a collection of the composer’s complete works in 2023. Now that is definitely something for the diary!

Listen

Buy

You can explore purchase options for this album at the Nonesuch website

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: CBSO Percussion Ensemble

Daugherty Lounge Lizards (1994)
Mazzoli
Volume (2006)
Reich
Dance Patterns (2002)
John Luther Adams
Qilyaun (1998)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble [James Keefe, Clíodna Shanahan (pianos), Adrian Spillett, Toby Hearney, Andrew Herbert, Matthew Hardy, RBC Students (percussion)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 3 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last Centre Stage recital for 2021 brought a welcome return from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble for a programme such as demonstrated the sheer variety possible in the percussion medium even with the relatively small number of musicians required in most of these pieces.

Although he has written extensively for larger forces, Michael Daugherty is often at his best with chamber groupings as the two pianos and two percussion of Lounge Lizards, whose four sections keenly evoke the composer’s student years playing jazz piano – whether Sip ‘N’ Stir at Cedar Rapids, Dennis Swing Club at Hamburg, Ramada Inn on the New Jersey Turnpike and Bamboo Bar in Amsterdam. A range of ‘cool jazz’ idioms and practitioners is alluded to, with the deadpan humour as has long been a Daugherty hallmark never far below the surface.

Those who heard Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea at a CBSO concert in May will know of her vivid timbral sense, and Volume is no exception. Inspired by the inventive and highly charismatic playing of musicians from Trinidad, it can be performed (as here) with a second vibraphone replacing steel drum and which, heard alongside intricate exchanges for two kick drums and five bottles of water is, to quote the composer, ‘‘a raucous and joyful … homage to the … spirit of innovative music-making’’ – this performance certainly being no exception.

As Adrian Spillett remarked during a platform change, the music of Steve Reich has never been absent from a Centre Stage programme by this group – and Dance Patterns finds this composer at his most dextrous. Written for pairs of pianos, vibraphones and xylophones as part of the Dutch dance-film Counterphrases, its content does no more while no less than is indicated by its title, though such is the deftness and understatement of its interplay that the six-minute duration passes as though in an instant and all too soon dissolves into the ether.

‘Understatement’ is hardly apposite to describe Qilyaun by John Luther Adams – the Iñupiaq word for ‘shaman’s drum’ also ‘device of power’ graphically evoked in this visceral workout for four bass drums. Its gradual deceleration of activity to a midpoint of isolated strokes then reverse acceleration back to the initial rhythmic continuum was executed with a formidable unanimity by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students, even if the need to keep listeners at a remove from the drums at the rear of the auditorium rather compromised social distancing.

That said, the piece was likely a revelation to those who know JLA only through his recent (and rightly acclaimed) orchestral works and concluded this recital in unequivocal fashion. Centre Stage resumes on January 21st with an all-Poulenc programme including the Sextet.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

In concert – Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Soliloquies & Dialogues – Music made in Lockdown

bcmg-soliloquies

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Oliver Janes (clarinet), Ryan Linham (trumpet), Colette Overdijk (violin), Julian Warburton (percussion), Amelie Thomas (trumpet)]

Oram Counting Steps – first version (2020)*
Murail Les Ruines circulaires (2006)
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2020)*
del Avellanal Carreño speak, sing… (2020)*
Donghoon Shin Couplet (2020)*
Howard R (2021)*
Reich New York Counterpoint (1985)
Birtwistle The Message (2008)
Oram Counting Steps – second version (2020)*

[Works indicated * received their live premieres]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been unable to present live events during the past 15 months, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has not been inactive – commissioning a series of pieces from composers around the world for performance online as part of its Soliloquies & Dialogues project. Having been performed at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery last Friday, a representative selection of these was this evening presented at CBSO Centre – in the process, confirming that ‘‘while we were all unified by lockdown, our reactions were still highly individual’’.

Tristan Murail’s Les Ruines circulaires was written well before the pandemic, but it vividly encapsulates the ‘dialogues’ aspect – clarinet and violin in confrontation, before opening out into a melodic discourse in a two-way process that might always be the same, only different.

It was vividly realized tonight, violinist Colette Overdijk then having two solo pieces – the first a live hearing for Ma Xiao-Quing’s evocative Back to the Beginning which, while less demonstrative than the online premiere, integrated elements of music and speech with greater subtlety and finesse. Donghoon Shin’s Couplet placed its expressive contrasts in stark relief – thus, an ‘aria and toccata’ in which long-breathed lyricism was succeeded by music whose gestural force and its rapidly accumulating energy were rendered with no mean virtuosity.

Between these works, clarinettist Oliver Janes gave the premiere of speak, sing…, where José Del Avellanal Carreño took advantage of new developments in Machine Learning technology – recorded improvisations by the soloist forming a basis for the interaction between ‘human’ responses as written by the composer with ‘artificial’ responses as generated by the prism-samplernn programme. The outcome was an eventful and unpredictable dialogue, though the subfusc quality of the electronic element rather stood in the way of more engaging synthesis.

Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint was no less radical in its interplay between clarinet and tape four decades ago, Janes (understandably) sounding more at ease in the dialogue with his pre-recorded self in this performance of appealing deftness and not a little quizzical humour. Beforehand, percussionist Julian Warburton took the stage for the live premiere of R, where Emily Howard explores geometrical concepts as well as the possibilities of sonic growth and decay in a piece whose variety is more immediate given its concision and sense of purpose. Afterwards, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Message provided a telling foil in its halting dialogue between clarinet and trumpet – tersely curtailed by the arrival of military drum; a piece that commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta in the pithiest of terms.

Framing the whole, two versions of Celeste Oram’s Counting Steps anticipated then reflected on what was heard. Taking its cue from Fux’s treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, specifically two aphorisms with their expressing strength through courage in the face of weakness and decay, its methodically elaborating trumpet part against a graphic video projection was confidently rendered by Ryan Linham – with, in the second version, Amelie Thomas hardly less assured in support. An arresting framework in which to present this always enterprising programme.

You can find information on the next BCMG live performance here, while Colette Overdijk gives the online premiere of Back to the Beginning here

On Record – Orchestra of the Swan: Timelapse (Signum Classics)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Timelapse is a concept album from the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Bruce O’Neil and its artistic director David Le Page. Together they have created a sequence of works from as far back as the 17th century or as recently as last year, the concept illustrating how music can transcend time. In Le Page’s summary, Rameau and Vivaldi can be seen as fresh contemporaries of Thomas Adès or Radiohead, while the roots to songs from David Bowie and The Smiths are seen to lie in the music of Mahler and Vaughan Williams.

What’s the music like?

Timelapse hangs together as an hour of music perfectly suited to either end of the day. Its sequence is an imaginative one, and it hangs together in the way Le Page indicates thanks to the quality of his arrangements. There are no syrupy cover versions here; instead a song like Bowie’s Heroes is reduced to its bare elements. In the orchestra’s hands it becomes a contemplation on the original, a free improvisation from the flickering string ensemble complemented by icy droplets of melody from the harp.

The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out has similar qualities, though the substitution of an oboe for Morrissey’s voice, while beautifully played, is arguably less effective. Radiohead’s Pyramid Song fares better.

The ‘older’ music, as Le Page suggests, dovetails beautifully. François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses and a sequence from Rameau’s Les Boreades work really well, while the addition of Trish Clowes’ saxophone to Vivaldi’s music for Sleep 1 is a nice touch, her recitative sensitively done.

The cold, spidery figurations of Schubert’s Sleep Softly – a meditation on his Serenade by Le Page – cut to a robust, bluesy solo, while the Couperin segues rather nicely to Steve Reich’s Duet and Thomas Adès O Albion, a chamber-music alternative to the Enigma Variations’ Nimrod, drawn from his Arcadia string quartet.

At the close of the set, Errollyn Wallen’s Chorale contains both soothing textures and an impassioned, wordless plea, while the last of Górecki’s Three Pieces in Old Style has a moving simplicity harking back over centuries, illustrating Le Page’s point rather nicely.

Does it all work?

Everything fits together nicely, the overall mood one of contemplation in the half light. I found the phrasing on Grieg’s Air a bit rushed at times, but that is personal taste of course – and when you’ve got round the idea of an oboe replacing Morrissey’s voice on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out you’ll agree that it works rather well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There is a great need at the moment for music to soothe the fevered brow, and Timelapse is an effective playlist fulfilling that function every time you listen to it.

Stream

Buy

You can buy the album from the Signum Records website